In this article, Metro Jacksonville travels across the pond to Europe. Well-known for its compact, historic cities, its urbanism seems out-of-reach given the partisan climate and snail’s pace of progress in Florida. Can we really learn from these established cities? Or is it too unrealistic?
Published January 5, 2015 in Cities - MetroJacksonville.com
We hear many reasons why American cities can never become like European ones. European cities are much older and have a richer history. They were built more densely from the beginning. Much of the urban core then was intact before the automobile was created. Highways never sliced apart their urban cores. Europeans are just, well….more progressive. Any piece of federal legislation wouldn’t make it through Congress. People are resistant to change. Americans love cars too much to give them up.
European cities’ livability does not come from a moral or cultural standpoint. No urban policy is better or worse than the other, save for its impacts on its citizens. European cities are best positioned for the 21st century right now, but still subconsciously rely on what also worked centuries ago. Despite all of the innovations and technological improvements of the past few millennia, humans are still the same biological creatures that they were thousands of years ago—walking forward, eyes scanning the horizon, keeping aware of dangers, socializing, processing the environment through their senses. We will explore how cities cater to—or betray—these universal qualities. Danish architect Jan Gehl calls this the “Human Scale,” and has been applying this all over the world, including in the United States.
Copenhagen is the capital of and by far the largest city in Denmark. Together with Malmo, Sweden, Copenhagen straddles the strategic Øresund strait that links the Baltic and North seas.
Image: Copenhagen in relation to Europe and Scandinavia. Aerial by Google Earth.
In 1989, Copenhagen was effectively bankrupt.
You’ve heard the same story for other cities. Originally a fishing town, Copenhagen’s influence held strong for centuries. It was always the keystone of the Danish economy. When the Industrial Revolution hit Europe, Copenhagen’s development accelerated just like every other major port city.
Then the manufacturing industry left. Copenhagen was an industrial town without industry, a port city with a weakened port. To maintain city services, Copenhagen took out too many loans. Once these funds quickly dried up, the implosion was complete.
One thing led to another, and in 2014 Monocle ranked Copenhagen as the world’s most livable city. How did this transformation occur?
Copenhagen’s Medieval Core
Image: Copenhagen’s medieval core and Christianshavn neighborhood with Jacksonville’s Northbank and Southbank core superimposed. Aerial by Google Earth.
Copenhagen’s official founding was in the 11th century when Bishop Absalon gave the citizens their own castle, which now lies directly beneath the modern Danish Parliament building. The winding street grid was formed by cow paths; their tracks soon evolved into a coherent village layout. While there have been major fires and bombardments, Copenhagen’s urban fabric remains remarkably intact to this day. This is largely because it was not bombed during World War II, while cities to the south in Germany weren’t as lucky. The result is a charming core of 18th-century buildings that house shops, businesses, and institutions. Since the car was a distant dream when the city developed, the public squares and pedestrian streets were difficult places to accommodate vehicles. But the city did it anyway.
Image: Strøget, before and after pedestrianization. Credit: Jan Gehl, “New City Spaces”
In the 1960s, the city’s main shopping street, Strøget, was nearing capacity. It was crowded with automobiles. The only option, it seemed, was to widen the street or build expensive freeways into and out of the city.
Enter Danish architect Jan Gehl.
Gehl suggested that the city close it to cars, and instead let the pedestrians have the street. This was met with harsh criticism. While many of us have heard of that type of idea today, this was the first of its kind at the time. After many twisted arms, he convinced the city to do a temporary trial run. This temporary trial run turned out to be a massive success, as Strøget’s pedestrian count increased by 35% in the first year alone. Another major street, Købmagergade, was next. Again, pedestrian activity increased. As Gehl closed off more streets and public squares to traffic, more people walked. A temporary experiment turned into a permanent positive feedback loop.
Why did this work?
Gehl has denounced modernist city planning, which attempted to use urban form to cure social ills and bring order to chaos. The city was then sculpted based on the planner’s own sense of morality or vision of utopia.
Some might demolish historic structures and build highways in the center of the city; others might design a cold public space that is repulsive rather than attractive to public life. One has to look no further than Brasilia to see how this monumental scale is detrimental to the human.
Instead, central Copenhagen is designed for the human senses. The streets are narrow and curve slightly. This makes pedestrians feel safe and enclosed; it gives a feel of curiosity, not anxiety, when wondering what is around the next bend. The lack of cars makes the streets relatively quiet, yet the abundance of people makes it interesting. Buildings aren’t too tall, nor are they set back from the street. This makes it much easier for pedestrians to walk in and out of shops. From then on, the key indicator of success of a public space was to be how it facilitates the basic human experience.
Being a city older than the automobile, Copenhagen had a lot of these urban design elements in place already. All Gehl had to do was make a small tweak to the existing model.
Image: Strædet, one of Copenhagen’s oldest streets, was recently closed to traffic. The street has many boutique shops and restaurants today.
Bike Culture in Copenhagen
Image: Bicycle parking at Copenhagen Central Station.
While it would be nice to say that Copenhagen built its cycling infrastructure from the ground up after horrible modernist developments of the 1960s, it would be inaccurate.
Copenhagen has had a bicycle culture since the beginning on the 20th century. It was once said that Copenhagen was the best city for cyclists before World War II, then during the war gasoline became such a scarce commodity that citizens had no choice but to bike.
With a wealthier population following the war combined with new suburban development came a car culture that slowly choked out the street grid. Public squares that were built for pedestrians were suddenly forced to hold cars. The city did not demolish any bike lanes, but instead focused their energy on accommodating the ever-growing car population.
The oil crisis was seen as a pivotal moment in Copenhagen’s shift back to bike culture. Around then, approximately 10 percent of Copenhageners biked. As citizens began adopting cycling into their daily routines, the city government incrementally added more bike-friendly measures.
Creating a Cyclists’ Utopia
Video: The Cyclesnake, completed in 2014, connects the trendy Vesterbro neighborhood with a bike bridge to Copenhagen University’s Humanities campus. (Credit: YouTube user László Balázs Nagy)
Copenhagen’s bike policy is centered on making cycling more safe and convenient. The government has not prioritized the cyclist rather than the automobile, partly because it plans on becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025. However, cyclists in Copenhagen do not choose to cycle because of these lofty goals of environmental sustainability. They choose to cycle simply because it is more convenient.
Cycling is cheaper for the average Copenhagener, and for the Danish government.
-Automobiles are taxed at 180 percent. Wages are very high in Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia, which means this isn’t as shocking to Danes as it is to Americans. However, it is a more pragmatic decision for the average Dane to cycle on a $500 bike. The money gained from this tax is in turn used to fund public transportation and sustainable infrastructure.
-Gas prices hover around $8 per gallon.
-For every kilometer cycled the Danish government gains 23 cents. For every kilometer driven by cars, they lose 16 cents. It is well documented that automobiles cause many negative externalities in the form of pedestrian deaths, increased healthcare costs, and pollution. Meanwhile, cycling infrastructure is much cheaper and is a healthy alternative to driving.
For many Copenhageners, cycling is also faster.
-The Danish government is building a cycling “superhighway.” No, this does not mean a large, 8-lane mega-highway that slices apart neighborhoods, like the one that was planned for the city center in the 1960s. Instead, on these designated “superhighway” streets, when a cyclist rides at 20 km/hr (~12mph), they will hit all the green lights. The lights will be timed to this average cyclists’ movement. The cars will then have to wait.
-Copenhagen is connecting sides of its harbor with bike/pedestrian-only bridges. New brownfield redevelopments that were once only accessible to cars are now better accessed via bike.
-The city of Copenhagen is incrementally reducing parking by 8 percent in the center city every year. Higher parking costs mean a greater disincentive to drive into town.
-Many major thoroughfares, such as Vesterbrogade, can hold more bikes than cars at one time. Induced demand, the phenomenon which explains why widening suburban roads just leads to even more traffic, applies to bikes and pedestrians too.
Cycling is also much safer.
-Copenhagen does not require the use of helmets. While it is obvious that wearing a helmet is safer, requiring its use discourages ridership. This decreased ridership is statistically less healthy for society in the long run.
-In snow, the bike lanes are cleared before the car lanes. Partly because of this, 70 percent of the Copenhageners who bike during the summer bike during the winter.
-Car drivers do not have strict liability when they hit a cyclist; however, 90 percent of drivers who hit cyclists end up liable. The law is on the cyclists’ side.
These policies can’t be implemented overnight. But with one on top of the other, Copenhagen is now one of the world’s most bikeable cities.
What Can We Learn?
Image: Amagertorv, a former marketplace dating to the 12th century
While Copenhagen does indeed have a history of a bike culture, it also has a history of dismantling and reassembling its bike culture through policymaking. After cities all over the Western world began to adopt automobiles in full force, Copenhagen followed. But the citizens held demonstrations and raised awareness, gradually influencing policymakers along the way. Activists planted seeds in the heads of those who could influence legislation, and today we are seeing the fruits of their labor.
Cycling in Florida is virtually nonexistent. Bike lanes and cyclists won’t show up overnight, either. Planners and policymakers in American cities do generally acknowledge, though, that cycling is cheaper and better for the environment. And we see that in the construction of bike lanes on the sides of roads….
The sad truth is that even if the city is allocating money towards bike lanes, it is piecemeal. It does not offer a cohesive network that makes cyclists feel safe. Copenhagen does not have bike paths on every road. They still have to play second fiddle to cars at times, even in the most compact streets in the medieval core. But it does have paths on virtually every main road. These paths all connect to each other and allow for easy wayfinding through unfamiliar neighborhoods.
A network like this can be achieved through a focused effort by citizens who want positive change in their city. If this focused effort is applied like it was in Copenhagen, cycling will gradually become the status quo instead of an afterthought.
American planners and policymakers have also begun to acknowledge the importance of the pedestrian; likewise, pedestrian infrastructure has found its “rightful” place on the side of the road as well….
When it has been convenient.
As for creating a pedestrian mall like Copenhagen’s Strøget, Jacksonville might be further behind. Much of the downtown core has surface parking or bland concrete facades that make pedestrians uncomfortable. The answer is not to block off Main Street to cars tomorrow. There is a “critical mass” of pedestrian activity that needs to be in place before a street like Strøget can be successful. Tampa tried transforming downtown’s Franklin Street into a pedestrian mall, and it failed miserably due to lack of programming and lack of understanding of what makes public spaces successful.
Still, Florida sorely aches for a pleasant place to walk. People want urban environments to stimulate their senses and create pleasant memories. This desire is so universal that millions of people are willing to pay upwards of $100 to experience it for just one day.
Image: Downtown Disney. Spend the evening in a vibrant place constructed for the pedestrian! Just make sure to pay for a valid ticket and leave before closing time. (Photo credit- flickr user John of Austin, Wikimedia Commons)
Jan Gehl didn’t intend to create his own fantasyland in Copenhagen. Rather, from a designer’s perspective, he sought to improve the user’s experience by catering to their senses. People want to be around other people. They want the fresh air. They want calm, yet vibrant urban districts. A mediocre street performer trying to play Stairway to Heaven is a much more pleasant sound than a diesel truck whizzing by.
Neighborhoods like San Marco and Five Points already exhibit many of these characteristics. It isn’t too far of a stretch to believe that Downtown can follow their example with subtle design changes that are human-scaled. It won’t turn into Copenhagen overnight, but it can still offer a pleasant experience to the pedestrian.
And like bike culture in Copenhagen, it takes a focused effort and gradual implementation. In this case, it was from one man instead of the masses. The pedestrian network in Copenhagen today is much larger than the stretch of Strøget that was part of the initial plan. His plans were once met with harsh resistance, while today they are beloved.
With this focused energy and gradual progress, Jacksonville can transform itself into a city of innovation instead of inertia.
And it won’t be inconvenient.
Guest article and images (unless otherwise noted) by Jeremy Shackett. You can contact Jeremy at email@example.com.
This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2015-jan-jacksonville-vscopenhagen-